Defrosting an RV refrigerator is a surprisingly easy job. We’ve been living with a propane RV refrigerator for many years now, and they always need defrosting after a few weeks or months. Being meticulous about not leaving the refrigerator door open unnecessarily can help, but when you find yourself living in a hot and humid environment or if you have the refrigerator side of your trailer or motorhome facing the blazing hot summer sun all afternoon, the frost is going to build up over time.
All you need to defrost an RV refrigerator is:
Over the years, we’ve tried several different techniques for defrosting our RV fridge, and in the old days this was a big job that, with some methods, could take well over an hour. We now have it down to a super fast method that makes this pesky job a cinch. The last time we did it, I made a note of the time on the clock as we went through each step. From start to finish, it took 20 minutes.
The first step is to turn off the refrigerator and empty the contents of the freezer into cooler bags or a cooler of some kind. Since these things will be out of the freezer for just 20 minutes, they won’t defrost and the ice cream won’t melt. If your RV is hot inside, covering the cooler bags with blankets for extra insulation can help.
We used to unload the whole refrigerator and empty it out completely, but that isn’t necessary and it takes a lot of time. An awful lot of what is in the refrigerator can handle warming up slightly as you keep the refrigerator door open to defrost it.
Instead, just unload the most temperature sensitive items — milk, yogurt, lunch meats, mayonaise, etc., into an insulated cooler bag or a cooler. Most of the fruits, veggies, bread, cheese, condiments, etc., can remain right where they are in the fridge for the 20 minutes it takes to defrost it.
Next, put a super absorbant chamois towel in the bottom of the freezer compartment to absorb the water from the melting ice, and use a hair dryer to thaw the walls of the freezer.
We live exclusively on solar power, and our 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter is what powers all our AC appliances, including the hair dryer. So, we have a low wattage travel hair dryer that draws just 800 watts (available here).
We put it on the high setting and keep a distance of about 8″ between the hair dryer and the walls of the freezer. A higher wattage hair dryer may need to be put on the low heat setting. Hold your hand about 8″ from the hair dryer and see how hot it feels.
After thawing the walls of the freezer a little, move down to the cooling fins in the refrigerator compartment. Keep the hair dryer in constant motion, sweeping it back and forth from side to side.
Alternate working on the freezer compartment and the refrigerator compartment.
Little ice sheets will begin to fall off the refrigerator cooling fins into the drip tray underneath. As the thawing process continues, increase the distance between the hair dryer and the cooling fins.
Don’t chisel the ice off the fins or the freezer walls with a tool. If you pierce the metal base behind the cooling fins or the walls of the freezer, the refrigerant (ammonia) will leak out. We don’t use any chiseling device. We simply assist the thawing process with the hair dryer.
Check beneath the cooling fins and you’ll see the bits of ice dropping into the drip tray.
If you go outside, on the back of the RV you’ll see water seeping out of the refrigerator vent.
Once all the ice has fallen off the cooling fins, pull out the drip tray and dump the ice in the sink.
Up in the freezer compartment, the chamois towel is now fairly wet with water that has dripped down off the walls. Wring it out and use it to wipe down the freezer and the fridge.
Load the food from the cooler bags back into the refrigerator and freezer compartments, and you’re done! Put the fridge at max temp for a few hours to help it cool back down, and then set it to the temperature setting you normally use.
Other RV Refrigerator Tips
The key to having an RV refrigerator work optimally is having the air circulate inside well. Overstuffing the fridge with food makes this difficult for it. We have used a little RV refrigerator airator fan that’s designed to keep the air flowing. We’ve had mixed results with this, and when it died we didn’t replace it. I think this would work well if there were space between all the food, but our fridge is usually packed (the turf wars between the beer and the veggies can be brutal…sometimes we can hear them battling it out in there!).
As a maintenance item, we keep the door seals clean, wiping them down periodically.
We use simple refrigerator thermometers to monitor the temperatures in the fridge and freezer. It has a built in hook, and we hang it from one of the rungs in the top shelf in the refrigerator. The one in the freezer rests against one wall.
We were surprised to learn that RV refrigerators have an expected lifespan of about 8 to 10 years. A classic sign of impending failure is the appearance of yellow dust in the refrigerator vent area behind the fridge (go outside and take the vent cover off and look around with a flashlight). Click the following link to read the funny story of our RV refrigerator replacement and see how an RV fridge replacement is done.
Because of the shorter lifespan, higher price, and use of propane in RV refrigerators, many (most) “full-time” level fifth wheels and motorhomes are now being built with residential refrigerators that run on AC power only (a dedicated inverter is installed so it can run from the batteries while in transit). For folks that have plans to dry camp and boondock a lot in their RV life, a residential refrigerator will require a much bigger battery bank and solar panel array than would otherwise be needed. We discuss that in more detail at this link in our introductory solar power article.
If our hair dryer method of defrosting an RV fridge seems unorthodox to you, believe me, we have tried many other methods. We tried opening the fridge and freezer doors and letting the fridge thaw out on its own. We tried doing that and “helping it along” by chiseling the ice off with a small plastic scraper. We tried putting a bowl of hot water in the fridge to help it warm up.
All of these methods were adequate, but they were time consuming. We’ve been using our current method with the mini travel hair dryer for a few years now and really, really like it.
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